Tuesday 27 January 2015

One Eider Came

Common Eider is the most heavily hunted duck species in Newfoundland.  This is part of the reason they are a very challenging species to photograph. Cape Spear, near St. John's (14 minutes from home) is a good place for Common Eiders in winter. Yet they are never reliable on any given day as they get hunted on calm days and there is no shelter during winter storms. 

Conditions seemed right this morning with light winds after several days of rough weather keeping the hunters at bay. I got to Cape Spear parking lot before sunrise and was in position and camera-ready at about sunrise at the point. I had clambered down to a somewhat risky but excellent location near the ultimate tip of Cape Spear.  I consider myself a veteran at reading the waves but here I could feel myself within the danger zone.  With a nervous eye I watched the bigger swells approaching. There are not many days in the winter you would even think about being here. 

The bottom line.  Eiders were elsewhere! There had been 300+ present just the afternoon before.  One lone 1st winter male Common Eider swam around to my position. I was testing out my "kelp suit" today. My body was not completely concealed by the rocks so I thought I could diffuse my presence with the kelp suit.  This one eider made the day.  It proved that the kelp suit worked. (The kelp suit is a sheet of camouflage bought at a hunting store intended for mainland deer hunters.)  It came much closer than any Newfoundland eider would ever naturally be to a  human being. It was a first-winter drake Common Eider. The pictures only hinted at the possibilities from this location if the ocean swell would ever allow it to happen again.

Classic Common Eider profile. The white around the neck is a sure sign of a 1st winter drake. 

Maybe I was not totally inconspicuous. The eider eyed me carefully but never showed feared.  

The relatively narrow frontal lobes of the bill identify this as the northern race of Common Eider (borealis) as expected during winter in Newfoundland.

A teasing flock of Common Eiders flew north past Cape Spear without a look at Cape Spear.  Some day luck will be with me.  I'll be ready.

Sunday 25 January 2015

Purps & Bullbirds - Cape Spear

Quest to see a wintering Sanderling with the Purple Sandpiper flock at Cape Spear got me down on the rocks.  Purple Sandpipers are charismatic shorebird no matter dully coloured and misnamed they are. The Cape Spear flock size varies day to day but it is a rare winter day when you can't see a Purple Sandpiper.  Photographing the birds is usually not an option for me afraid to get salt spray on my beloved lens. There was a swell coming in on Saturday afternoon but the light wind was blowing offshore.  The spectacular flock of 115 and light not too too bad though on the dark side under the overcast sky was enough to get me to pull out the camera.

The low tide exposes the seaweed on the constantly wave-washed rocks at the tip of Cape Spear.

The sandpipers were constantly on the moved being washed off the rocks in one place and moving to another.

Always challenging the waves, pushing the limits to get a chance to get those gammarids and other crustaceans and sea life that thrive in the highly oxygenated waters.

The ability of the Purple Sandpiper to go into helicopter mode the instant a wave hits allows them to push the limits that other shorebird dare not attempt.

Bullbirds (a.k.a Dovekies) also take advantage of the highly oxygenated zones around rough capes and points in the winter, especially during January month, probably feeding on some of the same critters the Purple Sandpipers are getting in the seaweed. There were several Bullbirds feeding just off the rocks where the sandpipers fed and photographed while standing in the same place.

They were very actively feeding coming up for a quick breathe of air before diving down again for more. They use their wings to fly under water and when actively feeding they leave them loosely extended at their sides between dives. Arse-up shots are frequent at times like this.

I did see eventually see the Sanderling fly by after an hour of watching the Purple Sandpipers.

Thursday 15 January 2015

Everyone Has a Dream...

....and it looks just like this!

There is no place in Canada where this couldn't happen this weekend. Doesn't matter how many you've seen or if you've never seen one the need is the strong.  One is never enough. The more you see the more you want. May you get yours this weekend.

Ivory Gull - the Ultimate Bird?

Sunday 11 January 2015

Birds Eat As per Normal in a White Out

It was a very rough day to be out birding with Ontario visitors Bruce Di Labio and Ron Hoffe. The forecast was correct with the snow squall warnings for the Southern Avalon Peninsula. Gale force winds, -10C and 20 minute intensive snow squalls between two minute breaks of partial visibility were impossible birding conditions. The visitors were happy with point blank views of two Dovekies feeding within 15 meters of the van at O'Donnells. There would have been no second choice for bird of their day. For me close up starlings feeding on waste fish offal in a fish tub at O'Donnells was a rare photo opportunity. Had I been there by myself I could have easily spent  an hour getting superb photos of the starlings collecting in clumps out of the wind behind crab pots in the strong early morning light. The birds were taking full advantage of what ever was in one of the fish tubs on the wharf. A field day for them in the storm.

The only other bird I photographed this day was a Common Loon that started fishing near the wharf in Trepassey as we ate our lunch. It was getting its lunch while we ate ours. The wind and snow probable had little effect on its lunch catching abilities.

This starling eyeing the contents of a fish box on the wharf at O'Donnells, St Mary's Bay, NF was just one of dozens feasting on something good during the cold west winds and heavy snow squalls.

A Common Loon surfacing next to the Trepassey wharf was surprised to see some kind of camera lens pointed at it. In the time couple of seconds it took for the loon to size up the situation and perform an escape the area dive, the bird was shot many times over in a digital way.

Friday 9 January 2015

hybrid Lesser Black-backed x Herring Gull - quickie

At mid day today (9 Jan 2015) there was an adult hybrid Lesser Back-backed x Herring at Quidi Vidi Lake.  It dropped down to the watering hole at  the Virginia River. There were four other birders there who wondered why I identified it as such and wanted to see some pictures, so here they are. The bird was fairly close but not present long.  This is a regular hybrid combination during the winter in St. John's with a couple or three or more adult individuals present but only this one so far this winter.

This bird was dark as a paler LBBG but the heavy Herring Gull like structure and pinkish-yellow legs were the signals that mean hybrid LBBGxHERG.

These two shots above show the Herring Gull like character of the bird.

The wingtip pattern pretty well annihilates any arguments this could be a pure LBBG. LBBG show more extensive black on each of the outer six most primaries and never (?) show the white tipped tongues visible on the upper side of P 7 & P8.  

Compare the underside of the wing tip pattern of the LBBGxHERG hybrid (picture above) with the shot below of the domesticated adult LBBG that lives at the west end of Quidi Vidi Lake. The more extensive black running up the primaries especially P7-P9 creates a fuller hand on a LBBG than a Herring Gull and this hybrid gull. The same is true for the upper side of the wing.

adult Lesser Black-backed Gull Quidi Vidi Lake, Dec 2014

Happy Gulling. We are back into that season where gull watching is just about the last place to mine for winter rarities.

P.S.  Very disappointed at how the mantle colour of this gull changed from a steely bluish gray in my files to a mud gray after the downloading to this blog. I often notice a significant loss of colour and sharpness when the pictures are displayed on this blog. Guess there is nothing that can be done about this but it is more than a nuisance when shades of gray matter.

Tuesday 6 January 2015

hybrid Ring-necked Duck X Scaup and a RNDU x TUDU preview

Yesterday (5 Jan 2015) Alvan Buckley posted photos of a hybrid aythya at Burtons Pond, St. John's,  Upon seeing the photos I realized I had seen this bird a couple of times since Xmas but assumed it was a drake Ring-necked Duck on the way to reaching breeding plumage. When you stop to take a second look and see the faint vermiculation in the back then it suddenly becomes obvious this is not your ordinary solid Ring-necked Duck. Now the funny head shape and very faint pale spur on the side add up to a hybrid and not a temporary look due to the state of moult. Alvan's conclusion that this was a hybrid Ring-necked Duck x Scaup make perfect sense.

This morning by chance I stopped at Quidi Vidi Lake on the way to work. There were some 75 aythya present in the constricted open water.  Exactly fifty of those were Tufted Ducks. Not sure when I noticed the Alvan hybrid but when I did I knew it was the same bird he'd seen at Burton's Pond 3 km away. I immediately started taking pictures with the 300 f4 lens with 1.4x converter but was wishing I had my 600 mm with me.

Conditions were harsh with west winds gusting to 90 k/hr and -7 C temp. No doubt this bird will be with us for the entire winter and there will be endless opportunities for microscopic views & photos. Below are photos taken during the excitement of getting to know this bird.

When served up on a silver platter this hybrid Ring-necked Duck x Scaup appears rather obvious.

But when merged with a mixed flock of Tufted Ducks, Ring-necked Ducks and Greater & Lesser Scaups in various states of moult all within a week or two of reaching full breeding plumage, it can easily be overlooked. I know you can pick out the hybrid duck. It is in the middle of the frame.

Here the hybrid duck is between a drake Tufted on the left and a drake Greater Scaup on the right. You can see how the blend of the solid black back of a RNDU and the vermiculated back of a Scaup back might look. 

More comparison shots.

The bright white wing stripe stopping abruptly where the secondaries end and the primaries begin is a signature of the Lesser Scaup.  Odds are strongly in favour of this being a Ring-necked Duck x Lesser Scaup hybrid.

How could this happen? Ring-necked Duck is a common breeder throughout Newfoundland and the southern third of Labrador. Lesser Scaup is slowly increasing as a fall and winter bird on the island of Newfoundland.  It has long been known to nest in the richer wetlands of Labrador. There are no breeding records of Lesser Scaup for the island of Newfoundland but more birds linger longer into May each spring in St. John's. It seesms right that Lesser Scaup should be exploring nesting real estate in Newfoundland.  A new bird risking starting anew in Newfoundland might have to find a related species to be friendly with in a pinch when May rolls around.

Another hybrid aythya.  This is a Tufted X Ring-necked Duck.  It has been present each winter at Clarenville, Newfoundland every winter for at least five years.  This picture was taken during Xmas holidays 2014.

Friday 2 January 2015

Jaunt to Cape Race

With the end of the Christmas holidays frighteningly near I woke up at 3 am realizing that if I was going to fit in a Cape Race trip it was going to have to be now. Weather forecast was not ideal. Heavy wet snow and drizzle until noon. The two hour drive on slushy roads turned into a longer drive meaning I wasn't going to make it to the lighthouse to start the seawatch at dawn.  So I made use of the dawn time to bird along the Cape Race road.  Intriguing were the small flocks of robins flying over the snowy barrens. They has been nearly no robins this winter due to a complete lack of dogberries. Scouring robins during a winter of severe scarcity greatly improves the chances of finding a Euro Turdus. Kind of like concentrating the flavour of ice wine by freezing grapes to rid the fruit of rift-raft. Every robin got looked at in triplicate. I'd like to do it again. Surely there is a Redwing to be found down that way.

The day was OK. As always it fills good to be on the Cape Race road. Seawatching was a bust due to poor viz through the huge wet snow flakes. Two immature King Eiders just off the lighthouse were so typical of this location. Cliff's feeder at the lighthouse was a little oasis of juncos and goldfinches. An American Tree Sparrow was a nice bird for the January list.

The day extended to Biscay Bay and Powles Head. There were plenty of Purple Sandpipers, lots of Common Eiders and guillemots, all three scoters, two species each of grebes and loons. Overall an enriching day in spite of two thirds of the day lost to wet snow.

This Dickcissel has been hanging out with House Sparrows at Portugal Cove South since November. The immature bird has never known the warm winters of the tropics that his cousins are enjoying today.

As always there are a few American Pipits to be found through the winter at select locations along the Cape Race Road.

The sun popped out around Daley's Cove on the way back showing off this Snowy Owl (one of two for the day) that was active by the road at midday. 

Driving home over the Cappahayden Barrens I stopped to look at a group of four Gray Jays hunting by the road. I threw out pieces of Christmas cake (dark and light with icing) for them. It was ignored.  I am always amazed at how Gray Jays survive through the winter in spruce, larch and fir trees. I am sure it is documented in the scientific literature.